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West labels Russia a fascist menace, but experts say that’s wrong and damaging

A narrative now holds sway in the West that Russia is a dangerous fascist state with imperialistic ambitions under Vladimir Putin. But many experts on Russia and Ukraine say this label is incorrect and fueling the war.

(CN) — To explain the horrific events taking place in Ukraine, a chilling narrative about Russia being a fascist state run by “the dictator” Vladimir Putin has taken hold in the West.

The problem is many experts on Russia's politics say it's a false or misleading rendering of why Ukraine is engulfed in war.

This narrative goes this way: Just like Adolf Hitler, Putin is advancing a blood-thirsty, imperialistic, nationalistic and revanchist ideology to build a greater “Russian world” and it's up to the West to stop him and save democracy.

In Ukraine, and increasingly in the West too, Russians are decried as “Ruscists” (a term merging Russians and fascists), Putin is demonized as “Putler,” Russian troops are called “orcs” and Russia is the “Land of Mordor,” the fictional land of dark evil forces in J.R.R. Tolkien's books.

But this damnation that Russia is a new fascist power intent on world domination is not just false but dangerously inflaming a war that poses the risk of escalating into a world war, according to experts who study Russia and Putin's regime.

“Since the mid-2000s, accusing Russia of being fascist has become a central narrative among Central and Eastern European countries, as well as among some Western policy figures,” wrote Marlene Laruelle, a French scholar and Russia expert at George Washington University. She is the author of the 2021 book “Is Russia Fascist? Unraveling Propaganda East and West.”

Among those who have accused Russia of fascism are Hillary Clinton, Prince Charles, Polish-American diplomat Zbigniew Brzezinski, prominent Yale historian Timothy Snyder and a number of Putin's political rivals, including Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess master and political activist.

It's a thesis reinforced at the highest levels with U.S. President Joe Biden calling Putin a “butcher” and “war criminal” who must be removed from power. Politicians in Europe too routinely make the Hitler-Putin comparison.

In April, after French President Emmanuel Macron talked about the need to negotiate with Putin, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki shot back: “One should not negotiate with criminals, one should fight them ... Nobody negotiated with Hitler. Would you negotiate with Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot?”

The Putin-Hitler comparisons are promoted by magazines, newspapers and television news channels that regularly feature images of Putin looking deviously evil.

Nicolai Petro, a Russia expert at the University of Rhode Island, said using the fascist label “is commonly used to insult, rather than to illuminate.”

“There is no serious political project or party associated with the 'Russian World' in Russia today,” he said in an email to Courthouse News.

“This accusation performs the simple role of reducing Russia to being Other than the West, embodying everything that is not desirable for the West,” Laruelle wrote in an essay before the invasion. “If 'Putin is Hitler,' as some profess, who would want to negotiate with him and try to rebuild a constructive dialogue with Russia?”

In a more recent essay, she argued that using the fascist and Nazi label against Russia is “an easy, intellectually lazy way to make Putin understandable and predictable” and that it “does more to obscure than to shed light on our range of policy options for ending the conflict.”

Of course, those who accuse Putin's Russia of being a fascist state have ample evidence to draw from.

Exhibit A: Hundreds of people defined as political prisoners – among them high-profile political figures such as Alexei Navalny – languish in Russian penal colonies. Since Putin ordered a full-scale attack on Ukraine, police have cracked down on anti-war protests. Recently, a councilor in a Moscow district, Alexei Gorinov, was sentenced to seven years for opposing the war.

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Exhibit B: Since rising from obscurity to power in 1999, Putin has turned Russia into what many experts regard as a one-party authoritarian state with himself as the strongman on top. Putin is accused of overseeing a crooked system where his political and business allies have become fabulously wealthy through corruption.

Exhibit C: The Kremlin is a bastion of illiberal rhetoric infused by traditionalism, nationalism and militarism that represses dissenters who challenge the Kremlin's politics, such as the closing of Russia's most prominent human rights group Memorial International last December.

Critics point to Putin and his inner circle citing the works of Ivan Ilyin, a right-wing Russian nationalist scholar who left Soviet Russia in 1922 and later lauded fascist leaders, and Alexander Dugin, a contemporary Russian philosopher dubbed “Putin's brain” by the Western press. Dugin's writings create a disturbing worldview where an expansionist Russia leads the fight against Western liberalism.

Snyder, the historian at Yale, crystallized the arguments of those who see Putin as Hitler in an opinion piece for the New York Times in May entitled, “We Should Say It. Russia Is Fascist.”

“People disagree, often vehemently, over what constitutes fascism,” Snyder wrote. “But today’s Russia meets most of the criteria that scholars tend to apply. It has a cult around a single leader, Vladimir Putin. It has a cult of the dead, organized around World War II. It has a myth of a past golden age of imperial greatness, to be restored by a war of healing violence – the murderous war on Ukraine.”

Snyder said Putin, like Hitler, must be defeated.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Moscow Region Governor Andrei Vorobyov at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on July 11, 2022. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

“A time traveler from the 1930s would have no difficulty identifying the Putin regime as fascist. The symbol Z, the rallies, the propaganda, the war as a cleansing act of violence and the death pits around Ukrainian towns make it all very plain,” he wrote.

“The fascist leader has to be defeated, which means that those who oppose fascism have to do what is necessary to defeat him,” Snyder concluded. “Only then do the myths come crashing down.”

Volodymyr Ishchenko, a Ukrainian political sociologist at the Free University in Berlin, said the fascist label being lobbed by both sides in the Ukraine war “has become completely discredited.”

While those in Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of fascism, Moscow too churns out propaganda alleging Kyiv's government of being run by Western-backed Ukrainian “Nazis” determined to destroy Russia.

“It's almost the most important legitimization for the war: That Russia is legitimately fighting Nazis in Ukraine,” Ischenko said in a telephone interview.

“One of the things that is strikingly different between Russia and classical fascist regimes is the actual lack of any ideological mobilization,” he said.

Unlike Nazi Germany or fascist Italy, he said post-Soviet nations like Russia lacked a “totalizing ideology.”

In Hitler's Germany, the fascist ideology was embodied by the National Socialist Party with its millions of party members and the SS and the Hitler Youth (the Hitlerjugend), vast paramilitary and youth organizations.

Those elements, Ischenko said, were the “fundamentals of the real fascists” and “nothing like this existed” in Putin's Russia.

That was the case before the Ukraine invasion. But what about now?

“With the invasion, the Russian political regime starts to take some of the elements that may turn Russia into something more similar to fascism,” he said. “Would it develop into some kind of new fascism – or fascism of the 21st century?”

He said it's conceivable Russia could evolve into a fascist state centered on mobilizing Russians around an ideology and turn into a real “pro-Putin movement.”

“That is quite possible,” he said, “and that would make the Russian political regime stronger in contrast to that paternal authoritarianism which has dominated post-Soviet politics for the past 30 years.”

Laruelle agreed that the Ukraine war may move Russia toward fascism.

“It is a danger. I think it has been moving toward that with the war,” she said in a telephone interview.

She said the rhetoric from some Russian elites, which she called the “party of war,” is now very close to what she would call fascist.

However, she added in her recent paper that the “party of hawks shouldn’t become the tree hiding the forest” and that much of Russia's elite are “uninterested in ideology” and that the hawks “should not be read as the position of the whole state.”

She said a fascist state is best characterized as one that advocates its rebirth through violence and relies on the “heavy mobilization of the population” around a “cult of war.”

Until now, she said Putin has only openly expressed ideas that could be called fascist during a March 16 speech where he talked about Russia’s “self-purification” from “scums and traitors” to make the country “stronger.”

But she said Russian authorities “do not celebrate war, but on the contrary hide it and have even passed a law that condemns those talking about a 'war' and not a 'special military operation' to up to 15 years in prison.”

She added that the regime is trying “to avoid actual military mobilization, as a large-scale draft of young men would force a recognition that the 'operation' is indeed a 'war' and could jeopardize the Russian people’s passive consensus around the regime’s 'special operation.'”

Until now, Russians have not shown to be fanatical about the war, for example with rallies and parades, and attempts to force society to show its support for the war “have been manufactured in a pretty poor, Soviet-inspired manner,” Laruelle wrote.

“Moreover, while youth support is a central component of any fascist regime, in Russia, the youth are the most unreliable part of the population from the regime’s point of view, and the least supportive of the war,” she argued.

She cited surveys of Russians that find most people see the conflict “as a geopolitical struggle with the West” and that there is not any “particular enthusiasm for the more cultural, political, and genocidal aims of liquidating Ukraine’s statehood and nationhood.”

But with the war at danger of becoming prolonged and Russia facing ever more difficulties, Laruelle warned the Russian regime “has a real risk of shifting toward this kind of mobilization of society, and this totally utopian vision of the future.”

She wrote that a rise in paramilitary groups inside Russia – which have been cultivated by Putin's regime – “would constitute compelling evidence that the Russian state apparatus is becoming fascist.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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